23 Feb 2017

Sport: NZ, New Caledonia qualify for U17 World Cup

10:26 am on 23 February 2017

New Caledonia and New Zealand have qualified for the Under-17 Football World Cup in India after defeating Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea in two nail-biting semi-final clashes at the OFC Championship.

New Caledonia claimed their first ever spot at a FIFA tournament after holding on to to beat the Solomons 3-2 in Papeete.

Pierre Bako opened scoring for the Francophones in the 23rd minute, giving them a narrow advantage at half-time.

Steward Toata fired an equaliser in the 63rd minute before New Caledonia pounced on the counter attack and regained the lead in the 68th minute when Abiezer Jeno connected with a free kick in the box.

Vita Longue netted with 11 minutes remaining to make it 3-1, but a goal from Junior Allen in the fourth minute of added time closed the gap, giving the Solomons brief hope of a late comeback, to no avail.

New Caledonia celebrate qualifying for the FIFA Under 17 Football World Cup.

New Caledonia celebrate qualifying for the FIFA Under 17 Football World Cup. Photo: OFC via Phototek

New Caledonia coach Michael Clarque was overwhelmed by the huge milestone reached by his young side.

"It's beautiful because it goes well beyond what I could have imagined," he said.

"I was a bit worried that the stress would affect them because it is not easy knowing that you're playing a World Cup Qualification match, but we played with strong spirit and it gave us confidence.

"Now we have seven months to work and we'll see how we'll perform in the World Cup. We've made our mark on the history of New Caledonian football today."

Solomon Islands coach Marlon Houkarawa was heart-broken to fall short of reaching the final and the World Cup.

"I'm disappointed in the result. We expected the win today but unfortunately things turned out different. I believe the boys did all they could do but they were exhausted," he said.

"I think they did extremely well in their previous games, especially against New Zealand and Fiji. Today they did not perform as I expected, not the same as they did against New Zealand a few days ago, but in football, anything can happen."

Meanwhile New Zealand took an early lead in the second semi final against Papua New Guinea, when Aben Pukue conceded an own goal in just the third minute.

Barthy Kerobin volleyed a deflection into the net on 34 minutes, ensuring PNG went into half-time with the scores tied at 1-1.

With extra-time beckoning, substitute Oliver Whyte charged into the penalty box and, in full stretch, reached a toe to the ball and sent it into the bottom right corner in the third minute of extra time to send his nation to the final, and to the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India.

New Zealand celebrate qualifying for the FIFA Under 17 Football World Cup.

New Zealand celebrate qualifying for the FIFA Under 17 Football World Cup. Photo: OFC via Phototek

New Zealand coach Danny Hay felt very lucky to walk away with the win against a very talented and passionate Papua New Guinea side.

"It was a really difficult encounter which we knew it was going to be. We had chances that we probably should have put away a lot earlier," he said.

"Their keeper pulled out some incredible saves so you've got to [give it to] Papua New Guinea, they really fought well and showed a lot of pride and a lot of spirit in fighting for their country," he said.

"We're very pleased that they [New Zealand] showed so much character and fight to actually see it through. It's very difficult out here in these sorts of conditions and humidity and heat so very pleased that they've actually got the job done."

Papua New Guinea coach Harrison Kamake was stunned by their performance and proud of the relentless effort put it by his young side.

"It was really amazing. The boys really went up to the challenge. It's a bit disappointing that they scored in the additional time, it was a heart-breaker for the boys," he said.

"I have been really impressed by the boys and their mentality towards the tournament. Our one purpose was to be competitive and we've all seen how competitive our boys have been throughout the whole tournament."

New Caledonia and New Zealand will meet in the OFC Championship final on Saturday night.